Business thinking for future FE success

  By UNIT-e   - Thursday 07 June 2018

Back in April, I had the privilege of hosting the UNIT-e National Conference. It’s been a fixture in the FE calendar for over 15 years, and although I’ve been working in education technology for quite some time, this was my first FE conference (no pressure then!). Any nerves quickly subsided though thanks to the very warm welcome I received from the delegates and speakers.

Now that the dust has settled, I'm able to reflect on a fantastic two days of insightful presentations, three panel discussions, and one incredible electric-pink peacock suit! With too much great content to cover in one blog, I’m going to highlight just some of the sessions from the packed programme.

Financial resilience in the FE sector

In his first public appearance since taking up the role of Deputy FE Commissioner at the start of the year, Ioan Morgan CBE kicked off the conference with his keynote address on lesson learned from the Early Intervention policy so far. It was interesting to hear that colleges are actually requesting early intervention. They are asking for the support before the situation progresses to trigger a formal intervention – the feedback does suggest that assessments are working, making colleges aware of challenges and aiding them at a much earlier stage. Ioan certainly delivered much to digest - a task made much easier by this excellent summary from TES Further Education.

The 'business of education'

We were delighted to team up with Collab Group on the conference programme and welcome Sally Dicketts from Activate Learning, and Jackie Chapman from Capital City College Group. They were joined by ‘TES FE Leader of the Year’ Lowell Williams, and ESFA Deputy Director, Peter Rossi, for the first of our hot topic sessions.

The key message for colleges was to scrutinise honestly those things they are good at and those they could develop.  It sounds obvious but numbers can sometimes blur the situation, and something at which a college has long believed they are successful may not be the strongest selling point to prospective students. By allowing a college’s senior team and staff to understand the college’s strengths, everyone can pull together to maximise the potential, rather than ploughing time, money and effort is something that clearly is not working but has always been a part of the college.

Peter Rossi’s advice is summarised perfectly in this TES Further Education article. We will also be producing a discussion paper summarising the session in the coming weeks with contributions from our panellists on what colleges could do more of, what needs to stop, what can be done better in to order to think and act more like a business.

Strategic importance of technology

Getting the grey cells firing after lunch, Robin Ghurbhurun, CEO and Principal of Richmond upon Thames College, Sue Attewell from Jisc, and Darren Tysoe from UCISA, took to the stage for our second hot topic session: Why technology should be a priority for every college leadership team.  

There’s no escaping it – technology has infiltrated pretty much every element of everyday life. And this includes college life. So why limit innovation to the MIS function? Let it permeate your college. For me, the message was loud and clear, a tech-rich FE campus will bring benefits to your students as well as your staff and institution. You can read more about the panel’s advice and experience of how colleges can better embrace technology in our latest discussion paper.

Delivering HE in FE

After a quick pit-stop for coffee and cakes, we were treated to not one, but two sessions on college higher education in the afternoon.

Cailean Carvalho, Head of Media at UCAS (I really must get your tailor’s details!), delivered a wide-ranging, whistle-stop tour of the apprenticeship landscape, the impact of FE on HE, and recent HE shift towards traditional FE markets. A key take-away for me, was that there is no point trying to compete directly with a university. Instead, it’s worth focusing on the positives of a degree taught at your college, including savings on accommodation and travel, and links to local and regional employers. Also, higher and degree level apprenticeships offer a huge potential revenue stream for FE colleges - of the 2017 university applicants that held an offer but declined it, 21% of those chose to go on to an apprenticeship instead. That’s a lot of students!


Cailean Carvalho, Head of UCAS Media

Indeed, this was echoed by hot topic panelist Mark Breadner from NCG. As the first FE college group to gain taught-degree awarding powers, it was great to hear about how they’re shaking up both respective sectors and traditional degree education. If you’re considering HE in FE, read our blog summarising the excellent contributions from our panel including HESA’s Andy Youell and Admissions Advisor Dan Shaffer, to find out more about the challenges of delivering college higher education.

And finally…

Ioan Morgan said every day he read positive statistics on FE colleges, reminding himself "things are not all bad". Having spent a wonderful two days at this year's FE National Conference, I'm inclined to agree.

Graham Cooper is Head of Education at Education Software Solutions. Prior to joining ESS, Graham spent 13 years in teaching. This is where he first became passionate about the impact of management information systems on student achievement.